Editor’s Note: India has a rich history in theatre, but our knowledge about the work our contemporaries and older groups have and are doing, is often limited to urban centres or the geographies we live in. Driven by a curiosity to know about the work being created across the country, over the next couple of months, we will publish interviews and stories with different theatre groups and personalities from around the country.
Next year, one of India’s most active and politically conscious street theatre groups, Jana Natya Manch (Janam) turns 50! It was founded in 1973 by a group of amateur theatre makers who were inspired by the spirit of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) led by playwright, actor and theorist Safdar Hashmi.
On the 1st of January 1989, Safdar was killed by a mob patronised by the ruling vested interests in Jhandapur, Uttar Pradesh. They were performing a street play Halla Bol, in support of worker’s demands led by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). His death was a huge loss to Indian theatre but it also became an important moment in the history of cultural resistance against political power. At a time when holding a point of dissent seems tougher than ever, when divisive politics has diluted all forms of media and art, the existence of groups like Janam becomes essential to preserve our democratic fabric. The group over several years has succeeded in making plays putting forward the voices of marginalised and oppressed groups. Outside the confines of a proscenium, it has taken its plays to the people, making theatre accessible and using it as a tool for social change.
To talk more about Janam, I had the good fortune of meeting one of its founders, and Safdar’s partner, Moloyshree Hashmi at Studio Safdar, Shadipur, Delhi. Some excerpts from the original audio of the interview have also been shared along with the text:
So next year Janam will turn 50… What has kept you going for all these years?
I think that there are two things that have kept us going. One is that we have been successful to go regularly throughout the year and take our performances to places where people live and work, like we say it in Hindi ‘kamkaji logon ke beech’ whether it is factory areas, slums, schools, colleges, mohallas… that continuity of performing, I think, is very important which has also made a steady stream of people join Janam. The regularity of performance and the consistency of our work I think is something that we’ve been able to achieve, which has kept us going!
After all these years, what part of theatre-making do you enjoy the most? And is there something you don’t?
You’re asking me? I am not good at these ‘don’t like and like questions’ you know… that’s not my pedagogy at all. I think the process of theatre-making has many parts and each part is really dove-tailed into the other. There is not one part that interests me more than the other. I look at it far more holistically. To me, theatre-making is right from the time of getting an idea, brainstorming, writing, improvising, people’s inputs, performing… especially during the early shows, getting feedback, and maybe changing the play, and then the play moves on. I think theatre-making doesn’t stop!
Since the inception of the group in 1973 till date, have there been any practices or processes in the way you make plays that have remained consistent?
Yes! The participation of people in the group at that point of time, is something that has always been consistent. So, when the play has been improvised, naturally everybody has participated but even when the text of the play has been written by one person, even then you know, the participation of everybody is there.
Safdar’s name is synonymous with the legacy of Indian theatre… I think in some ways his death was also a setback to the street theatre movement in India. Do you think we need another Safdar today for street theatre to get back its momentum?
Frankly, I don’t look at the whole thing like that at all because I don’t look at any individual, however talented or however important, as being indispensable. Actually, Safdar’s death was a setback to Jan Natya Manch but in a strangely convoluted way, I know it sounds a little odd saying it, but it brought street theatre back to the centre of things…
Janam’s work has always been fiercely anti-establishment but in the current political environment, has creating work become more challenging? Have your strategies changed?
Not at all! I think what has changed is how to respond to the times. So, what exactly one did, say in the late ‘70s, that exact same form may not be possible now. For example, when you’re talking of wages and the economic onslaught on workers, there has been a shift in the economic policies. Globalisation that happened from the early ’90s has made the poor poorer. So, when we are talking about why this is happening in the play, you’ve to address it differently… I remember in the ’60s and ‘70s the whole thing used to be that there were hoarders, who would hoard the grains and therefore people were not getting enough. There would be black-marketing and arrests… so, in a play like Samrath Ko Nahin Dosh Gosain, which is on price rise, you’re talking about (the mazdoor) going to the Seth ji directly and saying ‘aap humein anaaj dijiye’ but today, the public distribution system has been dismantled by the government. People are not getting enough because the policies for the poor have changed! We will still have a song, we will still have a scene, it will still be funny… but it will have to change and you will have to think differently.
For a lot of theatre makers today, we are constantly talking a lot about fear, censorship, what we can say and what we can’t say… you’ve been doing this for many years… how do you see this?
You are right about this thing of what you can say and what you can’t say. We’ve often talked about this… but more than that (while making plays), I think what is going to be understood and not understood is more important. Should we have this aspect in the play? Will this small scene explain this point better? That’s always the creative challenge, so it’s not just fear but more like how to present a complex idea in 25 minutes. See, you cannot stand up, take a particular person’s name and give gaali, that is something that we will never say to even the worst offender. We will take a positioned stand; it can’t just be abusive, so that’s not self-censorship, I think that is understanding the value of one’s art! But then how much can you still say? Can you say that this is wrong? Can you stand up and say that so and so’s house shouldn’t have been broken? Because the people who broke it are the people in power or are certainly being supported by the people in power, that’s a decision every group and every individual has to take. But I think most people have a way of saying it… what happens is when there is an oppression of this kind, this fear psychosis, I think most artists who are honest about their work, figure out a way of saying it.
Could you talk a little about SAFAR (acronym for Safdar Rangmanch), the mobile theatre (built in 1997)? I found it quite fascinating!
It was an absolutely wonderful thing. Unfortunately, we don’t use it in its full capacity, but we use elements of it in the Studio Space. Safar was built because the idea was that taking street theatre in working class areas was not a problem but to take proscenium theatre like we used to take till the mid-’70s was becoming difficult because those spaces weren’t there anymore where we could erect a stage and all… so why don’t we have a mobile thing that we can set up? We discussed what we wanted with a designer Janak Mistry and he came up with this wonderful structure which was totally dismantlable and it used metal and cloth to put up a performance space, audience space, as well as a green room, backstage; wings and lights, as many as you want or as few as you want!
What do you see Janam’s role to be in the near future?
Janam’s role is really to be able to create plays and to be able to connect with people and other groups because I think that that is a very lasting thing.
More about Jana Natya Manch:
Janam’s street theatre journey began in October 1978. The first play Machine with beautiful, stylized dialogues depicted the exploitation of industrial labour. Janam has played a significant role in popularizing street theatre as a form of voicing anger and public opinion. It has done plays on price rise, elections, communalism, economic policy, unemployment, trade union rights, globalization, women’s rights, education system, etc. Some of its best-known street plays are Hatyare, Samrath, Aurat, Raja ka Baja, Apaharan Bhaichare Ka, Halla Bol, Mat Banto Insaan Ko, Sangharsh Karenge Jitenge, Andhera Aaftaab Mangega, Jinhe Yakeen Nahin Tha, Aartanaad, Rahul Boxer, Nahin Qabul, Voh Bol Uthi and Yeh Dil Mange More Guruji.
So far this group of self-trained actors has done over 8,500 performances of nearly 70-odd street plays and 15 proscenium plays in about 140 cities in India.
Address: 2254/2A Shadi Khampur, New Ranjit Nagar, New Delhi
About Studio Safdar:
Studio Safdar, named after Safdar Hashmi, is an independent, non-funded space for arts and activism based in Shadi Khampur, West Delhi. It was established in 2012 by Jana Natya Manch (Janam). The Studio is dedicated to creating an alternate and affordable space in Delhi for staging and experimenting with the arts. It supports activism that explores the multiple intersections of communities and politics. Studio Safdar is adjacent to the May Day Bookstore and Café, and in fact the two spaces are internally connected.